For 64-year-old Ben Gilpin, a white former commercial farmer in Zimbabwe, the country’s fast track land reform programme – which started in 2000 and led to the displacement of approximately 3 500 white commercial farmers – has been nothing but traumatic.
In a matter of months, Gilpin lost some 25kgs due to stress.
Unlike some, who may have inherited land that was forcibly taken from the black majority, Gilpin bought his farm, located in Zimbabwe’s Manicaland Province, in 1987.
By the time his farm was taken, he had already paid off the mortgage, and the farm was at an advanced stage of development, with irrigation and dams having been constructed.
The 1 300-hectare farm, which employed 150 permanent employees and another 450 casual workers, was used for horticulture, cash crops and tobacco.
What pains Gilpin most is that his decision to buy and work the land was based on former president Robert Mugabe’s reconciliatory tone at independence.
“We also do not intend to interfere unconstitutionally with the property rights of individuals. I urge you, whether you are black or white, to join me in a new pledge to forget our grim past, forgive others and forget.”
“Join hands in a new amity, and together, as Zimbabweans, trample upon racialism, tribalism and regionalism, and work hard to reconstruct and rehabilitate our society as we reinvigorate our economic machinery,” Mugabe had said.
The message made Gilpin stay.
“My parents had passed on during the liberation war, so I had no reason to stay, but Mugabe’s reconciliatory message made me change my mind to invest in a farm,” explains Gilpin, a father of four. “We were significant domestic investors.”
Like most farmers, Gilpin said he perceived his farm as an investment and pension, and losing it meant he had lost retirement security.
Additionally, Gilpin and other farmers were forced to give their farm workers severance packages, a move that cost him his last tobacco crop.
“It was most burdensome for those with established farm workers.
“It cost me my last tobacco crop and the means to re-establish in post farming life,” he said.
Traumatic court processes
He had to depend on his wife, a medical practitioner outside the country, for financial support.
It was she who ultimately shouldered the cost of educating their children until they graduated from university.
During the farm invasion, Gilpin had to go through traumatic court processes, landing some victories, but failing to get court orders enforced.
“We got court orders to go and remove our equipment and property, but still struggled to take anything out, until court papers were changed to make it impossible for us to get anything,” he tells Fin24.
Although he finally managed to remove some equipment, he had lost 25kgs in weight in just eight months, as the anxiety took its toll on his health.
‘Let’s move forward’
For Gilpin, the interim payment – for which 300 distressed farmers have already applied, out of a possible 3 500 – is the beginning of a process to bring closure.
“It has been a painful experience, but let’s put it into the past. There is need for national healing and this (payment of compensation is an opportunity to move forward.
“This window should also be used to bring skills back into the country. Some farmers have already left the country, but being an immigrant in another country is a hard journey.
“For many of those, certainly the younger ones who went looking for opportunities, it’s been a hard ladder to climb,” Gilpin says today.
“What is significant is that this has come as a form of dialogue, and we believe dialogue is the way forward.
“Since November 2017, we have felt there is desire to deal with it. We would like to see an agreement reached on [an amount for] the overall compensation.
“We feel positive about it, although taken in context RTGS$53m* is small in terms of the size of the problem.”
*In February 2019 Zimbabwe introduced a new currency called the RTGS, or real-time gross settlement dollar. RTGS$53m equals roughly R240m.